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World

AFP
February 15, 2018

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Maldives tries to fight off travel alerts as tourists stay away

Tourists have been cancelling hundreds of hotel bookings in Maldives every day since the imposition of a state of emergency last week, tour operators say, despite government assurances things are normal in the resort islands, far from the capital.

China, India, the United States and Britain issued travel warnings after President Abdulla Yameen imposed the emergency and arrested judges who had ordered him to free jailed opposition leaders.

"We have had about 50-60 room cancellations per day and the number is consistent since it started. This is the same for all of our properties in the country," said a spokesman for Paradise Island Resort-Villa Group which runs the 282-room hotel, a 20-minute ride by speedboat from Male where the turmoil is centred.

Tourism accounts for a third of Maldives’ gross domestic product, measured at $3.5 billion in 2017. Ratings agency Moody’s has said it would lower its 2018 growth forecast of 4.5 percent if tourists are deterred for a prolonged period.

Calls from Yameen’s opponents for military intervention by India, the leading power in the region, have added to the uncertainty. The Muslim-majority nation of 400,000 people lies close to international shipping lines and has become another arena of contest between India and China.

China, which has built close ties to the Yameen government in its push for a network of friendly ports in the Indian Ocean under its "Belt and Road" initiative, has cautioned against foreign interference. But that hasn’t stopped it from issuing a travel warning to its citizens, who make up a fifth of the tourist traffic.

"We have a higher market for Chinese and Indian travellers and we are seeing most of the cancellations from these markets," said a tour operator in Male speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the government.

Early estimates pointed to a 20 percent to 25 percent rise in cancellations over the normal pattern since the crisis began, he said. The Chinese New Year begins on Thursday when millions of Chinese travel at home and overseas during a week-long holiday.

A spokeswoman declined to say how many cancellations or postponements there had been. Shanghai’s state-run Xinmin Evening News said last week about 3,000 people from Shanghai had been expected to visit the Maldives over the holiday, and that in recent years more than 300,000 Chinese visited the country annually.

Airlines have not yet cancelled flights but carriers including Air India, India’s SpiceJet, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines have allowed customers to cancel or change their tickets at no cost during specific dates during February. The Chinese airlines also echoed Beijing’s warnings about visiting Maldives.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday China had sent security reminders regarding the situation in the Maldives. "According to my knowledge, relevant Chinese departments are actively giving guidance to Chinese citizens to pay high attention to the security risks in travelling to the Maldives and appropriately plan their itineraries.

"If Thailand’s experience is a guide, the disruption could be short-lived. The bombing of a Buddhist temple in Bangkok in August 2015 caused a 17 percent drop in Chinese tourists to Thailand in the weeks afterward. But they began coming back again by October of that year, the government said, and Thailand finished the year with a record number of Chinese arrivals.

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